The Blog

Friday, December 18, 2009


A few days ago I was merrily pedaling away when the roller wheel on the shaft from the generator motor broke off.  I blamed the failure on the fact that the shaft of the motor was bent so I called one of my favorite neighbors who I knew would love the challenge of helping me figure out how to make the generator work.
When we talked on the phone he said it was no problem to straighten the shaft so just bring it on up.  To speed things up, I took the motor apart before stopping by.  John, my neighbor, checked out the shaft and it was dead on straight.  Very mysterious but he had fun accusing me of drinking too much.  I let him play with me.  I suggested that maybe the way the motor was put together was the cause so we put it back together and it stayed straight.  I have no idea why it had a wobble but it no longer does so I'm happy.
I also asked John to help me figure out how to get the motor shaft and the tire relationship to work.  We talked it through for a while and then pulled a small pulley wheel off of the wall and attached it directly to the motor shaft.  I was concerned that the pulley wheel would cut the tire since the edges are sharp so John wrapped a load of rubberbands around the wheel hoping that they would distribute the pressure onto a larger surface area.
I took the motor home and set it up on the bicycle trainer.  The rubberbands didn't work so I took the pulley wheel off and filled the groove with epoxy putty which hardened into what so far seems to be a great surface.    Original version:

Check out this photo so see the new improved drive wheel.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Interview With Jon Dougal

Jon Dougal 1 hour interview 12-15-09I met Jon a few years ago while working on a green energy project with New Voice of Business.  We reconnected last week and he agreed to talk with me about what he's been up to.  He's been up to a lot and I got a lot of his fascinating history that I never learned about when we were working together.  Jon is also quite the philosopher and he agreed to let me record our conversation.  It's an hour long and I didn't edit it since most of it is worth listening to.  Check it out and learn about Jon, some of his projects and his vision of the future.  Warning:  it's not a very bright vision!  

Monday, December 14, 2009

Bicycle generator update

Two issues have come up now that I've actually had a chance to put some time in pedaling.  I am getting a lot of wear on the rear tire which I can hopefully minimize by adjusting the tension between the motor shaft and the tire.
The other issue is that the battery pack with the inverter is a really inefficient way of storing electricity.  This computer is charged with12 volts DC which is more or less what I produce when I pedal.  Running the power into the battery and then through the inverter creates a lot of waste.  Since I'm not really doing this to maximize efficiency but more to demonstrate that I can produce useful power while exercising, I don't really care.  It is disturbing though, when the fan goes on in the battery pack as part of the charging process.  Why am I running all that energy to convert DC power to AC power to convert back to DC power?
Well, at least I'll keep my legs strong!    

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Building the bicycle generator/trainer

Before explaining the image above, I'll tell a little history about putting this together.  The first salient point is that I knew almost nothing about what I was doing.  I have some experience doing electrical work for home wiring but that is about the extent of it.  Feeling rather ignorant, I poked around the web and found a trainer/generator kit for about $450.00.  The price was high but I figured that since I was so ignorant, I had no right trying to do it myself.  Additionally, I ordered a power pack which is basically a battery with an inverter in it.  The battery stores the energy produced by the bicycle generator and the inverter turns the 12 volt battery juice into 110 volt power so that anything can be plugged into it.  As I mentioned in the last post, my goal is to charge the computer with the energy produced by the bicycle generator.  That way, I get exercise and keep my energy use down by just a very little bit.  The amount of energy needed to charge the computer is not insignificant when measured in terms of how long I have to pedal!!
So, I ordered the stand with generator and it didn't come.  I finally contacted the supplier who told me it was backordered.  (My kind of customer service!!)  So I cancelled the order and went to e-bay where I found a stand and a motor and figured I could put the two together.  Along the way I got the help of one of Liza's friend's father who understands these things and helped me decide on a motor as well as helped me more recently as I finally put the unit together.
All of the bicycle generator sites told me that I needed a charge controller to prevent too much current from entering the battery and destroying it.  Made sense to me so I went to Fry's electronics and got a charge controller for about $35.00.  So now I'm into this thing for about $200.00.  Much better than $450.00.  After a very entertaining and inexpensive trip (about $4.00) to the hardware store, where the salesperson and I came up with plumbing components that attached to the drive shaft of the generator-motor, I then came home and rigged up an adjustable mounting system for the generator so that the turning tire of the bicycle spins the motor shaft.
Very excited, I hooked up the charge controller from Fry's and began pedaling away.  Within seconds, I got huge resistance in the pedals and the distinct smell of burning plastic filled my nostrils.  Damn,  I had cooked the charge controller.  Depressed by my lack of success and not really knowing where to turn, I went back to the internet and found a real person in Arizona who told me I could forget all the fancy charge controller nonsense and just hook up and watch a volt meter so as to deliver just the right amount of current to the battery.  Much relieved,  I got another volt meter (cooked the first one) and set it up.  When I plugged the generator into the battery pack, the motor started turning.  Wait!  That was supposed to be my job!   With some expert advice, I figured out I needed to put a blocking diode in the line so that the power can only go in one direction.  For $2.50 I picked up 4 diodes, soldered one of them into the line and voila, everything works.

I still haven't figured out how much power I'm producing but I know that it takes quite a bit of energy to charge this computer. I think more than two battery charges.  I don't really care though, because the point is to demonstrate that it can be done and to make me feel like I am not just exercising for exercises sake but because I also want to make electricity.  The side benefit of teaching my kids that their energy can be turned into electrical energy is also very cool.

So, the photo.
RIght hand side you see the rear wheel, the stand, the mounting plate and the generator.  There are 4 big bolts that hold the mounting plate to the stand by squeezing the plate onto one of the stand's uprights.  Three hose clamps hold the generator to the plate and offer some adjustment of the shaft in relation to rear tire.  You can see the plumbing fixtures I found that attached to the shaft.
On the left you see the battery pack that stores the energy produced and has the plugs in it for AC power out.
In the center you see the volt meter putting out almost 15 volts which is about right.  The little black thing is a diode that is exactly like the one that is in line where the wire nuts are.  When I pedal, I put the volt meter where I can see it.  It turns out that the battery provides resistance so it is easy to know when I'm pedaling enough.  When pedaling becomes difficult, I am right at the correct voltage.  To try to pedal harder is a real challenge and since it's bad for the battery to put too much current in, everything works out just fine.


I've finally figured out how to bottle kids energy!!

This story begins as the days became colder and the threat of rainy weather occasionally became a reality.  I felt myself losing my desire to get out my bike, push it up our very steep road and go for ride.  After seeing the Rock the Bike folks at the Climate Action day in San Francisco, I decided to look into generating electricity while training on an indoor bicycle stand.  After many false starts, I finally got the rig up and working.  (I'll detail the story about building the trainer in the next entry.)  Well, lo and behold, the kids just love the bike.  Being a recumbent, it's easy to climb on, comfortable to sit on and completely stable the way I have it setup in a stationary stand.

So, here it is.  A way to finally bottle some of that extra energy!  My oldest daughter, Liza, is actually able to pedal with her feet and today she charged up the battery enough to add some charge to my laptop.  The other cool thing is that when we have a power outage, we now have a way to keep our computers, cell phones, and other small load things like lights up and running.  Very cool!!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

December update

Outreach efforts made me realize that asking strangers to host an event is a huge ask that most folks don't have the time or inclination to tackle.  So I looked at our event plans and adjusted them to a more feasible program where we will set up appointments with "sustainability heroes" as we pass through town.  We will record the visits and post them here.  If folks want to invite a few friends or whatever, that will be gravy.
In addition, I just posted a petition on our website where you can go and sign,  if you agree.  The petition is a statement of commitment on the part of people who agree that sustainability is an active process that includes sustainability in our personal lives, our communities and in Washington DC.
Check it out.  Sign it if you agree and spread the word!!

Finally, I got the pieces to turn my bicycle into a trainer/electricity generator.  I put it all together and started pedaling away.  Almost immediately I got huge resistance and my charge controller started smoking.  Not good.  I'm not sure how to move forward.  I somehow need to control the energy coming off of my legs so that I can charge a battery with it.  My goal is to keep my computer running on pedal power.